Recently one evening, my daughter and I were shopping at our favorite grocery store. While there, we noticed someone acting very suspicious. He was a rough-looking young man, wearing dirty clothes. He was looking around a lot, and moving from aisle to aisle quickly. Later, I saw that guy run out of the store. Store clerks were running after him. Obviously, the man was a shoplifter.
My daughter, now 8 years old, was kind of upset. As we drove home, she asked me a lot of questions: why did he steal things? will the police catch him? why are there bad people in the world, etc?
I told her that there are people in the world who are very selfish, or very confused. They don’t care about other people, and do things like that. But then I told her that Shakyamuni Buddha teaches that eventually all people can become Buddhas too.
I didn’t just make this up either. In the 12th chapter of the Lotus Sutra (hokkekyō 法華経), is a story about Devadatta and the Buddha. Devadatta (デーヴァダッタ debadatta) was a cousin of the Buddha.1 He was infamous for trying to usurp the Buddha and run the community himself. He contrived to have the Buddha killed 3 times, according to tradition. Finally, he split the community for a short period, but eventually he regretted his actions. According to tradition, when he was coming back to apologize, the ground split open and he fell into the earth and suffers in the lowest-realm of hell to this day.
In other words, Devadatta is similar to Judas Iscariot in the Christian tradition: a betrayer who regrets his actions, but suffers torment anyway.
However, the 12th chapter says more about Devadatta:
“Devadatta, after immeasurable kalpas have past, will attain Buddhahood.”
What this means is that Devadatta will suffer the karmic consequences of his actions, but that is not the end of the story. After a long, long time, when the karma is exhausted, he will eventually return to the Buddhist path and ultimately become a Buddha too. In the same way, everyone suffers from the gravity of their actions: more serious actions create more serious karmic repurcussions, but eventually everyone can become an enlightened Buddha.
The point of Chapter 12 is that if someone as terrible as Devadatta can (and will) become a Buddha, anyone can.
Of course, I didn’t explain all this to my daughter, but when I told her that all people eventually become Buddhas, she seemed relieved.
This world is not always terrible, and with wisdom and compassion, change is always possible. But it does take time. Sometimes a lot of it.
1 Several family members of the Gautama family became monastic disciples: his son Rahula, Devadatta his cousin, Ananda was another cousin, Maha-Pajapati his mother’s sister, etc.